AUGUST 17, 2015
I hope you haven't had it up to here with me talking about my baby Will, because otherwise you'll be skipping quite a bit of this review of The Harvest, John McNaughton's long-awaited return to feature filmmaking. But I'll save that for the next paragraph and just let you know that this is a pretty great dramatic thriller, and that's not me acting like a fearful producer or publicist - whatever you might hear, this is NOT a horror movie in the usual way. Scary (to parents), sure, but even the thriller elements are confined to a few key scenes - you should watch this as a sad/dark character drama first, thriller second, for it to work at its full potential. Granted, a new McNaughton film should be enough to excite you, but some might hear his name and "horror" and expect another Henry - this is most certainly not the case.
But honestly, I'd rather watch Henry's most uncomfortable scenes on a loop for an eternity than ever have to face the situation our protagonists do here. Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton play a couple whose only son is suffering from illness, unable to walk and mostly confined to his bed. Andy makes the acquaintance of Maryann, a new girl in town who lives nearby with her grandparents, but his parents are hellbent on keeping them from spending too much time together (though Shannon seems at least slightly more open to the idea). Around the halfway point we discover why (SPOILER): there's another child in the basement, in a coma and about the same age as Andy. Maryann does some sleuthing and discovers that there was a kidnapped boy that fits the description, and if you're unsure what they're up to, look at the title again (and did I mention that Morton's character is a doctor?).
So basically you have 100 minutes of every parent's nightmare rolled into one. The kidnapped boy's parents aren't in the movie, and thank Christ for that because it was hard enough watching Shannon and Morton deal with their sick kid - I don't know if I could handle seeing the anguish of parents whose child had been snatched away from them. Plus it would make my mental turmoil even harder to deal with - I am very much of the opinion that there is absolutely nothing I wouldn't do to keep my son alive and well, but would that extend to taking someone else's child? Luckily for that theoretical other kid I'm not a doctor, so if Will ever needed an organ donor I'd have to go through the proper channels, but putting myself in Morton's shoes - she had the ability to keep her son alive (and presumably, no way of getting him higher on the organ transplant list) and acted on that. Bad as I feel for the other, unseen family, I can't really side against her on that one. I panic every time Will coughs - no telling what I'd do if it was anything serious.
And it's not even that stuff that smacked my gut over and over, as it deals with other parental nightmares too. There's a scene where Shannon looks at a photo album and sees a picture of him with their son, both happy (and, twisting the knife, the boy about Will's age), coupled with another scene where he tries to bond with the kid as he plays a video game, failing miserably - that one hurt just as much as the sick kid stuff. My dad and I didn't have much in common, and that hurt enough when he died - it hurts even more now that I have a son of my own, wondering if the same thing will happen to me someday (his current obsession with bouncing balls is troubling - Stephen Hawking could probably beat me at any sports game). I can't reconcile the idea that the little boy who laughs maniacally when I come home from work and races over to me to clutch at my leg might someday have nothing to say to me, so seeing it happen to Shannon (one of our greatest actors who can sell that pain with a mere flutter of the eyes) was no picnic.
(Oh, on the sports note - it even has a scene where a kid is nearly killed playing softball. Like I said, it's EVERY parent's fear in one movie.)
Worse, Morton is even more tyrannical when it comes to sheltering him from having friends. When she learns he's snuck her into the house to play video games she freaks out: throws out his toys, demolishes the corn he was growing outside (title has two meanings!), and worst of all, shows no concern for when he falls out of his bed trying to plead with her to stop. And then she slams his fingers in the door when she storms out! It's brutal to watch; luckily I don't really fear my wife or I ever stooping that low but it was still far more upsetting for me to see than any random murder in a typical horror movie (similar to the scenes in Babadook when the mother loses her cool with her kid - and this tyke isn't annoying!). Ultimately we learn a bit more about why she's so uncaring toward his wellbeing, softening those blows (if retroactively), but man - to sum up, this movie is not an easy watch at times, and I wonder how unnerved I'd feel about it two years ago, when I was still just a childless schmuck who only had two cats to worry about.
Because all that said, the movie itself leaves a little to be desired. Strip away my omnipresent parental hangups, and what's left is a pretty good but slightly undercooked drama that hinges on a couple of reveals and some great performances. In fact I can't help but wonder if it might work as well or better as a stage play, as most of it takes place in their house (and the few scenes that don't could easily be transplanted there) and the performances are the main reason to see it. The thriller elements aren't strong enough for it to really stick out in that regard (there's even a "get out of the house before someone catches you" scene, which is to the thriller as a car not starting is to a horror movie), and some plot points could have used another draft or two to clarify or strengthen - particularly the kidnapped boy's origins. The final scene is also technically happy but kind of confusing as well (can't explain without spoilers), as if it was tacked on late, or given the slightly long runtime, if there was more to the final scene that was cut to move things along. Unusual for a Scream Factory release (with IFC), the disc doesn't have any extras at all, so there's no deleted scenes or commentary to clarify such things.
But it's definitely worth a look, whether you're a parent or not. It's a shame some are trying to pin it as a horror movie, because I think that will just set viewers up for massive disappointment (indeed, I was kind of assuming it was a slow burn thing with something far more insidious going on in the basement; luckily I reset my expectations in time). Sure, it's ironic that this non-horror movie unnerved me more than 99% of traditional scare flicks, but the label evokes something this movie doesn't even attempt to offer, so it's misleading and kind of insulting. And it's not like McNaughton only works in the horror genre (out of 7 or 8 features, only 2 are horror), so it's even stranger attempt. A couple of startling moments does not a horror movie make - and it's not worth potentially turning away horror-phobic viewers from seeing such great performances.
What say you?